VIDEO: Hangout on Air: Futurists discuss The Transhumanist Wager, with Zoltan Istvan

Yesterday I participated in a London Futurists Hangout on Air: Futurists discuss The Transhumanist Wager, with Zoltan Istvan. Besides Zoltan, organizer David Wood, and myself, the two other panelists were Chris Armstrong and Rick Searle, who both wrote reviews of the book. Many viewers watched the streaming video of the discussion on Google+ and Youtube and submitted interesting questions, some (especially those upvoted by many viewers) answered in real time. Watch the full video recording below.

As I say in my review, I have mixed love/hate feelings about The Transhumanist Wager.

I think The Transhumanist Wager [] promotes an interpretation of transhumanism that I find far too militant and devoid of compassion. At the same time, while Zoltan and Jethro don’t have all the answers, they do ask important questions, and offer some valid answers. I find their [ideas] too militant and uncompromising, but at the same time, I think it’s important to affirm [similar] ideas loud and clear in today’s dull, politically correct, anti-libertarian cultural climate.

The above paragraph is an edited version of what I wrote in my review, where I used the term “libertarian” to refer to Jethro’s ideas. But on second thought, Jethro is not a libertarian, certainly not in the live-and-let-live sense that is dear to my heart, and the frequently voiced comparison with John Galt is mistaken. John Galt wants to be left in peace, but Jethro Knights is an authoritarian control freak. Real libertarians would take any measures to protect themselves from aggression, but they would not impose their rule on others. I appreciate Jethro’s radical and uncompromising transhumanism a lot, but his ways are those of Stalin, not Gandhi.

Jethro’s “First Law” reads: A transhumanist must safeguard one’s own existence above all else.” I certainly agree that everyone has the right to safeguard one’s own existence, and of course I would take very radical measures to safeguard mine, but I don’t really agree on “above all else.” There are things that I value more than my own existence.

Immortality is not a realistic goal for our generation. Just forget it. I hope Aubrey will prove me wrong, but I am afraid I am right. Perhaps future generations (maybe even those who are babies now) will enjoy indefinite lifespans via biotech and/or mind uploading, but not us. Just get over it. That leaves cryonics as a possible escape option, but in this case there is no urgency: they freeze you now, and unfreeze you whenever we conquer death, in decades or centuries or whatever.

My favorite character in The Transhumanist Wager is Jethro’s love, the delicious Zoe Bach. In her “Quantum Zen” outlook, Zoe believes in the quantum interconnectedness of all things and she imagines that self, encoded in the entangled twists and folds of quantum reality, may survive physical death. She also thinks that future scientists may be able to use super-science and quantum technologies to resurrect the dead. Jethro agrees, in fact he wrote an article about technological resurrection, but he considers far-future speculations as a distraction from his overpowering drive to launch his transhumanist revolution and attain immortality here and now. The tension between Jethro’s and Zoe’s philosophies is, for me, the most interesting aspect of the novel.

I consider technological resurrection (Tipler, quantum weirdness, or whatever) as a possibility, and that is how I cope with my conviction that indefinite lifespans and post-biological life will not be developed in time for us, but later. Since this is equivalent to religion, I don’t share Jethro’s rabid hostility to religion. On the contrary I think appropriate interpretations and formulations of transhumanism and religion may be perfectly compatible and mutually reinforcing.

Of course part of the discussion focused on the violent force used by Jethro and his followers at the end of the book. Everyone agrees that violence is a bad thing, but with different positions on when and how it is legitimate to use force in self defense. I have nothing against using force in self defense, but I think separation is a good alternative (often the only good alternative) to violence. I would have preferred an alternative end, one where the transhumanist leave the Earth and Go Galt in outer space.

Hugo de Garis, author of The Artilect War, thinks old-style humans (the “Terrans”) will resist and wage bloody wars against those who want to move on (the “Cosmists”), and fears that “species dominance” wars may result in billions of deaths. I hope it will not come to that. I think humans and machines will co-evolve, with humans becoming more and more machine, and machines becoming more and more human, until it will be impossible to tell which is which, and eventually humans and intelligent machines will blend.

But, instead of war, I hope the Cosmists will move to the stars and leave the Earth and the solar system to the Terrans. Perhaps they will leave some kind of “Cosmic Embassy” in the vicinity of the Earth, to assist those who want to migrate. I would certainly leave the Earth behind, at the first possibility, and happily migrate to the stars.

Reading The Transhumanist Wager

Even with the reservations above, I think The Transhumanist Wager is a great and important book, visionary, enjoyable, and thought-provoking, and I recommend it to both transhumanists and critics, and to all science fiction fans. After the radical, fun optimism of the 90s, contemporary thanshumanism seems lukewarm, watered down, and defeatist. Too much maturity, too much sobriety, too much ethics, too much responsibility, not enough vision, not enough experimentation, and last but not least not enough fun. Instead of trying to appease the cultural mainstream, I think we should recover the disruptive, revolutionary, politically incorrect spirit of the 90s, and I welcome The Transhumanist Wager as an important step in this direction. If Zoltan wants to start a transhumanist revolution (watch the end of the video), I am ready to sign up! I look forward to reading more about Zoltan’s plans on his new Huffington Post blog.